More or less exactly ten generations after Edmund Burke’s treatise concerning the French Revolution and roughly about twenty generations after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press, I would like to give you a small update on the state of news, media and publishing following the advent of modern computers on the dissemination landscape.
In this endeavor, I will utilize a case study involving a podcast video on the interwebs, in particular youtube.com, which I hope will help by providing a graphic illustration of what’s going on right now. The case in point is a discussion between an evolutionary biologist, William von Hippel, and a media magnate, Joe Rogan, concerning the publication of Mr. von Hippel’s new neato book titled “The Social Leap”. I shared a link to the entire discussion a couple weeks ago, here I wish to focus on a short segment starting at 2:08:55.
my fascination with the topic centered on the origins of human language, but unfortunately
there was hardly any discussion of this during the podcast. Although there are
many fascinating points regarding the evolution of homo sapiens, very little
(if anything at all) was directly related to the genesis of human language. I
have often noted that the very first line in the Bible’s book of Genesis
directly indicates “the word” as being at the beginning of human history, but
exactly how this first word was ever spoken remains an enigma. My own hunch is
that it followed other types of expression – such as body language, facial
expressions and the like – and that several rather complex communicative norms
needed to become institutionalized (and that language was therefore perhaps far
more difficult to develop than other technologies). I imagine that three
evolutionary developments might have been particularly advantageous, namely: 1.
increased brain size; 2. “whites” of eyes; and 3. improved vocal apparatus. Mr.
von Hippel also mentions the first two of these developments.
I have heard Noam Chomsky give a ball-park estimate of ca. 75 thousand years ago for the approximate beginnings of language. Most of the developments mentioned by Mr. von Hippel predate that by a longshot, but the segment I mentioned above (2:08:55) has to do with a development that is undoubtedly much newer, since it is about reasoning and argumentation (which as far as I know must require language). The segment begins with a discussion of confirmation bias, and Mr. von Hippel then mentions a 2011 paper written by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, saying the paper shows that humans actually evolved to use confirmation bias to persuade each other of their own opinions rather than actually trying to find out what is actually true. I was shocked by this statement and read the original article. Upon doing so, it became clear to me that Mr. von Hippel had misrepresented the original findings – and I have contacted Hugo Mercier and he assures me that my shock was indeed warranted.
& Sperber (2011), on the contrary, contends that while the confirmation
bias may very well be active when producing arguments, it is largely inactive
during the evaluation of arguments. This symbiotic relationship is crucial, and
to overlook it is a gross distortion of the findings. Why did this happen?
the answer to this question involves yet another development in the history of
human languages, perhaps even newer than the “Why do humans reason?”
development of argumentation proposed by Mercier & Sperber. Perhaps the
earliest records of writing date back to cave paintings and sculptures made by
humans tens of thousands of years ago, but the development of writing systems
standardized enough to be used for communication across larger stretches of
space and time required the development of more advanced social
institutionalization – perhaps dating back no further than just about 10,000
years (in other words, only ca. 500 generations).
For most of
this time, writing was extremely limited and was only available to the most
educated classes. Therefore, any ideas shared would only be written down if
they passed the muster of such highly educated gatekeepers. In my humble
opinion, this recurring process led to the development of something I wish to
refer to as a publication bias – a “believability” of ideas that have been
written down. Shortly after the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press a
little over 500 years ago, the world up to that point was shaken up briefly…
but that came to an end when copyright law was established and the production of
large-scale printing presses became prohibitively expensive. For the past
several hundred years, the publication bias has largely been
reinstitutionalized, though the publishing industry became highly fragmented
(from a church monopoly before 1500 to a plethora of publishing gatekeepers
thereafter). The new gatekeepers were governed by many laws, and thereby it was
possible to control the dissemination of information. Early modern information
technologies such as telegraph, telephone, radio, television, etc. did little
to change that.
change it was the advent of the personal computer. Desktop publishing was
hardly a challenge to traditional publishing, but electronic publishing is
marching forwards in leaps and bounds on its way to completely eradicating the
titans of the paper era. Day after day, the cost of publishing information
across the entire globe continues to new record-setting lows. It is a
well-known, commonplace fact that publishing technology has now also been
birthed from Pandora’s box, and that it is now nearly everywhere, cheap and
easy to use… for anyone.
lies the rub: The days of publishing gatekeepers are finally over. Clicking a
button is not at all difficult to do… and so everyone’s doing it.
we need to face today is that the publication bias – the naive trust in written
information – is (or at least should be) also gone, probably forever (or
at least for the “foreseeable future”).
likewise we see virtually on a daily basis that the publication bias is
actually very far from gone. On the contrary: not only do old habits die hard,
but now we have even more, new and improved, of such biases.
Perhaps leading the pack is the modern brand name – completely vacuous and
empty, but highly valued, exclusive and nearly impenetrable to most rational
thought processes. Brands carry the weight of innumerable imaginary people,
built up over years, decades if not centuries. Such colossal weight bogs the
average human’s mind, and the most popular brands are revered as gods, never to
be doubted or questioned. What previously had been delegated to print, today
can fly as high as Coca-cola, Apple, Amazon, Facebook or Google or YouTube or
untold other brands. No longer is the sky the limit, either – no, these fantastic
companies will fly to the moon, Mars and far beyond into space, reaching for
ordinary humans ever come back down to earth? How will we ever be able to
re-introduce a modicum of rationality into our species? Perhaps we should untie
ourselves from our slavery to brands, brand names, megalithic monopolistic
enterprises and such. Maybe we should return to ordinary communications –
straight talk, free of mumbo jumbo.
the founders of the Internet apparently did have enough foresight to foresee
the potential dangers of centralized information resources. The technology at
the basis of modern civilization today is actually not the problem. The problem
is modern human behavior, especially the way modern humans behave in groups. We
have seen this time and again throughout the 20th Century, now we
must “human up” and become more reasonable.
learn to recognize the difference between fake and real. This is actually not
as difficult as it sounds. What makes it relatively simple is when we simply
recognize that the human languages we use on a daily basis are our own, and
that we are free to communicate our ideas, wants and needs as we please. We
don’t need no central authority to control our thoughts. We don’t need no
dictator to figure out the truth. We can rely on what we understand from
humans, and also that we will be understood by humans. Humans are rational
beings – and that means they will rationalize their ideas, each according to
their own language. Mutual understanding among humans is the primary goal we
must strive for. Regular ordinary straight talk is the basis of human
rationality, and it is time we recognize this fact and reestablish regular
ordinary straight talk into our daily lives, our information and communication
technologies and our entire media landscape.
not trust that Joe Rogan or William von Hippel are right. We should not feel
secure that the big data algorithms of YouTube or Google will watch out for us.
We need to open our own eyes for ourselves and take a good hard look at reality
– because that is what matters.
point I wish to address is an issue that I feel could easily lead to a
misunderstanding. While I argue that brand names are inadequate as symbols of
trust or reliability, brand names do serve a constructive purpose, function and
useful role in the modern social order. These labels and identifiers enable us
to refer to individuals, individual entities, individual processes and
distinct, unique phenomena we engage with and participate in on a daily basis.
Therefore, they serve an integral role in our entire social fabric. Note,
though, that our ability to reference such entities and phenomena has very
little to do with the trustworthiness of the entities or phenomena themselves,
but rather with the trustworthiness of the social order – for example, a
well-functioning legal framework that forms the basis of such well-established
social institutions as private property, fair trade, open communications, etc.
Meaningful information requires language, and meaningful accounting requires itemization. Bringing both of these phenomena together is a matter of dovetailing information organized via language with the accountability of big data bases. If you would like to participate in helping to make this happen, I invite you to get up and sign up with phenomenonline.com!